About a year ago I was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and stumbled across a video that immediately fascinated me, even beyond normal Insta compulsions. A young woman — who I’d later learn is ceramicist Sarah Duyer, aka Pot Punisher — was casually, violently throwing pottery against the wall, the floor, whatever surface might be available, and smashing it into a million little pieces. Her pleasure in the destruction, or to use her word, punishment, was palpable. And it was contagious.
After initially discovering the magic of Pot Punisher, anytime I was feeling particularly aggressive or anxious I’d head to her account and watch the slow motion annihilation of pottery with a strange mix of schadenfreude and glee. It wasn’t even until I started to encounter the concern-trolling comments about her wastefulness that I learned none of the pots being demolished were usable, anyway.
Dubbed “seconds” by ceramicists, these flawed pots are the products they wouldn’t offer to customers first — and within the process of throwing a piece, there’s ample opportunity for the whole thing to go south. All that’s left to do after a pot cracks, wilts, or chips, is to reclaim the clay and start again, by destroying the pot. But there is a certain beauty in the way Duyer has turned that process of destruction into a shared cathartic ritual.
“There’s a lot of stages and a lot of opportunities for things to go wrong in the process of throwing a pot,” Duyer explained when we spoke over the phone recently. “I use ‘seconds’ as a catchall term for any pieces that I wouldn’t sell as firsts, like things that I would sell online. I’d posted some little videos on my story of smashing seconds while throwing them in the reclaimed bin, before starting a separate account. And people got really excited and really happy about them. So I kind of made it its own thing — and it’s just grown from there.”
Duyer is already a well-established ceramicist and artist outside of her Pot Punisher performance art, working both in-house at studios in San Francisco, and more recently, due to the pandemic, independently selling her work online. Most of her work is functional wear, pieces like mugs and planters that could be used around the home, but she also occasionally works on sculptural pieces, like a recent series of handled trophies emblazoned with phrases like “Kind Of An OK Person” and “#1 Shithead.” Or, there’s this creepy-crawly creature teapot that combines her for love of the off-beat with classic functional wear.
For those who aren’t familiar with pottery and ceramics, the lengthy process during which raw clay is transformed into something magnificent — like the above-mentioned teapot series — can be extremely grueling, and losing a piece at any one of the various stages of production is always possible. Dealing with that grief is a pretty emotional process that can trip up young artists, and one of the functions of Pot Punisher, for Duyer, was to find an outlet for that reaction.
“When I first started doing ceramics and making more pieces consistently, it would be pretty heartbreaking when I lost a piece,” she remembered. “I would have that short little mourning period after something went wrong. After that, I’d have to accept it and move on, and either remake the piece or go back to the drawing board. But it’s gotten to the point where my mourning period is so short when I get a piece out that’s cracked or has something’s wrong with it, because it’s just been repurposed into this performance art project.”
Growing up in Maryland just outside of DC, Duyer studied at the University Of Delaware and fell into pottery completely by accident. “I started doing ceramics in college about ten years ago,” she said. “At the time I was a biology major and I thought I was going to go into research. I took a ceramics class on a whim, fell in love with it, and it changed my whole path. I moved out to San Francisco after I graduated, and I’ve bounced around different studios in the city since then.”
But along with a large majority of the American workforce, Duyer lost her job when the pandemic hit this past spring. Given the economic repercussions of the onset of COVID-19, she also opted to move some Pot Punisher content to an Only Fans account, selling lewd photos and other punishment-adjacent material to those who are looking to support artists via a non-traditional mode.
“Only Fans kind of ranges from casual lewds to, like actual porn — there’s no restriction on the platform,” she said. “You can just do whatever you feel comfortable with, and I think that’s the best approach to it. I’d been kicking around doing a Pot Punisher photoshoot, like dressed in fetish wear, and that sort of segued into Only Fans after I lost my job and we’ve all been stuck at home.”
Whatever format she’s operating in, Duyer’s relationship to Pot Punisher is always focused on expressing frustration and loss in a healthy way, and reflecting on the fragility of creating anything at all. Since social media can so often be a venue for projecting false perfection, the whole concept of Pot Punisher is to portray the very real failures that every artist necessarily encounters; it’s an epic encapsulation of the defeat that comes along with creativity, presented in real time.
“It’s nice to be able to take that frustration out in a way that’s healthy and fun, and communal,” she explained. “I think what I really want people to take from it is just acceptance that failure is just part of the process. It’s part of learning a new skill and growing as an artist, and I think that concept gets glossed over a lot, especially with social media you’re trying to present the best version of yourself and the finished version of your work. In all of those failures, I’ve come out of it with knowledge of what to do next that’s going to make future pieces even better.”
Along with her ceramics and the blessed antics of Pot Punisher, Duyer also creates a zine called Pot Pals, a collaborative project where artists draw pots and she then recreates the drawings in real life. You can find more information about that zine project here.
Follow Pot Punisher on Instagram here.